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In-flight Wi-Fi gathers speed

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Reuters/Lucas Jackson/File

(Read caption) Wi-Fi in the sky is taking off, promising much better connections for travelers and a bonanza for the companies that sell the systems. With satellite-based Wi-Fi, Internet speeds on jetliners are getting lightning fast. And airlines are finding that travelers expect connections in the air to rival those on the ground - and at lower cost.

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Gone are the days when your only choices for in-flight entertainment were thumbing through SkyMall or watching a bad movie. The growth of in-flight Wi-Fi makes it easy to binge-watch Netflix and answer work emails on your phone, laptop or tablet at 30,000 feet.

Although more planes than ever are equipped for Internet access, less than half of domestic aircraft have it, and service may be spotty (and expensive) until better technology becomes the norm.

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The current in-flight Wi-Fi situation

Each airline generally uses one Internet provider, so as a passenger, you don’t get to choose your Wi-Fi service. You may, however, get to select how much you want to spend, as some carriers offer packages at different price points (others simply charge by the hour or flight segment).

In 2013, a study by air travel data firm Route happy estimated that about 38% of domestic flights have Wi-Fi. But progress to increase the number of flights with Wi-Fi may be slow. Research firm IHS predicted in late 2013 that the penetration of wireless connectivity in commercial airplanes wouldn’t even reach 50% until 2022.

The majority of domestic airlines use Gogo as their Internet provider; it primarily relies on air-to-ground broadband Wi-Fi (though it’s adding new satellite technology to select aircraft). Southwest Airlines and some other carriers turn to competitor Row44, which uses satellite-based Wi-Fi. A few other airlines use smaller providers or manage Internet access themselves.

Satellite-based Wi-Fi is the fastest form of in-flight Internet, according to Reuters, so it’s no surprise that Gogo is moving toward it. If you are on a Gogo-serviced flight with its air-to-ground technology, it may be a little slow and spotty at times.

Although satellite technology is superior, there are many different types of in-flight satellite emerging, so some carriers are waiting to see which technology goes mainstream before committing to expensive installation.

Important caveats

You should know that although most airlines now claim to offer Wi-Fi, they are all still in the process of adding it to their fleet. This means not all planes from that airline will necessarily be equipped with Wi-Fi. Sometimes it’s possible to know in advance. For example, Virgin Airlines has it on all its aircraft, and JetBlue says all planes that fly NYC to LAX have Wi-Fi. But sometimes you won’t know whether your aircraft is enabled with it until you check in online 24 hours before your flight.

Additionally, although some in-flight Wi-Fi services are available internationally, most are still offered only when you’re flying over the contiguous U.S.


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